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Judge strikes down evolution stickers, admits ‘secular purpose’

ATLANTA (BP)–The months-long trial over whether evolution disclaimers in the form of stickers on textbooks in a Cobb County, Ga., school district are permissible ended with a federal judge saying the stickers clearly have a “secular purpose” but are unconstitutional and must be removed.

In his 44-page decision handed down Jan. 13, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper in Atlanta said the stickers, which warn students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact,” violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for the separation of church and state.

To reach his decision, Cooper applied a three-pronged test developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All three prongs must be passed in order for the disclaimer to be deemed constitutional.

Cooper determined that the stickers cleared the first prong because they serve a secular purpose, but they failed another part of the test which asks whether the statement at issue conveys a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion to “an informed, reasonable observer,” The Journal-Constitution said.

The judge concluded that such an observer “would interpret the sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. That is, the sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders.”

The text on the stickers in question reads, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Arguments in the case began in early November after six Cobb County parents and the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued school officials over the stickers. The school system began using the disclaimers in 2002 after 2,300 people signed a petition opposing the biology texts because they failed to mention alternative theories, according to the Associated Press.

John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Science and Culture, a national think tank that regularly poses scientific challenges to Darwinian evolution, said while he disagrees with the invalidation of the stickers, he is pleased that the judge recognized that promoting critical thinking about evolution is legitimate.

“At the same time, this case is pretty much a side show to the real debate over science education policy right now,” West said in a Jan. 13 news release. “The case deals with a three-sentence sticker, not an effort to balance the curriculum to include an objective discussion of scientific evidence critical of Darwin’s theory, as well as evidence that supports it. Nor does the case deal with the entirely different question of whether alternative scientific theories such as intelligent design can be taught, as the court itself noted.”

West assessed the judge’s decision as “bizarre” from a constitutional law standpoint, since he ruled that the school board had a legitimate secular purpose for the stickers and acknowledged that some scientists criticize modern evolutionary theory but then declared the stickers unconstitutional because of how some readers might interpret them.

“In other words, the judge struck down this sticker not because it was designed to advance religion — he ruled it wasn’t — but because he thought some people might wrongly believe the sticker advanced religion,” West said. “It’s unfortunate that the judge apparently has such a low view of the intelligence of his fellow citizens. If the judge can figure out that the school district adopted the sticker to advance the legitimate secular purpose of promoting critical discussion of evolution, why couldn’t the citizens of Cobb County?”

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  • Erin Curry